Was this Finnish medieval warrior non-binary? DNA tests performed on a 900-year-old femur from a grave unearthed in 1968 seem to say so.
First discovered at Suontaka Vesitorninmäki, in the municipality of Hattula, the burial has puzzled experts over the decades. Some think the occupant was female. Others that both a man and woman were laid to rest there.
If confirmed, the latest report turns what people thought they knew about ancient Finland on its head.
The confusing case of the medieval warrior
The grave contained oval-shaped brooches laid on woolen textiles, Live Science writes. This ties in with existing information about feminine outfits. Rabbit hair and feathers are also in evidence.
Jewelry suggested a high status, together with two swords: one without a hilt which rested on the body, and the other located above the deceased. So, this individual could have wielded weapons during their lifetime.
As detailed in July’s European Journal of Archaeology, commentators previously “denied the possibility of a woman buried with a sword and tried to explain it as a double burial.”
Lead study author and archaeologist Ulla Moilanen (University of Turku) tells CNN the grave featured “an unusual and strong mixture of feminine and masculine symbolism”.
Non-binary was a thing nearly a century ago?
Moilanen and the team examined human remains and a soil sample to draw some modern-day conclusions. Live Science writes it’s “possible that the person may have identified as non-binary”.
Why are they so sure? Femur analysis indicates the occupant was “anatomically male and had Klinefelter syndrome”.
What’s that? Klinefelter syndrome is found in mens’ genetic makeup. The presence of an extra X chromosome leads to decreased testosterone production in some cases.
Mayo Clinic writes about “reduced muscle mass, reduced body and facial hair, and enlarged breast tissue” as a result of the syndrome. Symptoms can vary from person to person.
Smithsonian Magazine quotes a University of Turku statement, in which Moilanen says the individual “might not have been considered strictly a female or a male”.
Not only does the warrior appear non-binary, but this identity was possibly accepted by medieval Fins. The reasoning is that someone deemed unacceptable by the community wouldn’t have been buried in such a dignified way.
This challenges ideas that men ruled the roost in centuries-old Scandinavia. Smithsonian Magazine also notes evidence relating to shamans and other spiritual figures, who may not have stuck to the script socially.
How certain are experts that the Finland warrior didn’t have one gender?
Ultimately, these are educated guesses. Smithsonian Magazine reports that “only a small sample of genetic sequences could be read”. This sounds a note of caution over Klinefelter syndrome as a defining factor.
The study didn’t have a huge amount of material to work with and the process was innovative. But the number of positive responses from the scientific community shows that the team is at least onto something.
Historical examples of non-binary figures
CNN, speaking to Chris Babits of Utah State University, highlighted historic “non-binary” cultures and individuals. From Native Americans to the Hijras of ancient India, the concept of gender became blurred long before today’s attention-grabbing headlines and social media wars.
The Public Universal friend — formerly Jemima Wilkinson — was an 18th-century colonial preacher who decided to forego their identity as a woman. They were what these days would be classified as non-binary.
Spreading the good word about beliefs that incorporated both Quaker and Baptist elements, the “Friend” gained a following. The Society of Universal Friends traveled around New England, promoting principles over labeling.
A little like Finland’s medieval warrior, the Friend adopted a look that was both masculine and feminine. The Society crumbled but its founder’s contribution is being re-examined in the 21st century.